Resonance. The quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating. Some movies are like that. The word has been replaced by the executive classes, in their terrible new-speak way, with the word “zeitgeist-y”. Defining the “spirit” of the “time” in a way (“y”). I prefer resonance. Resonance is how we appreciate truth and what we mean—forgive me as I speak for us—when we say a thing “seems likely.” There’s a forest of premises built up in our minds and when a new piece enters, the trees shake in agreement or in deviation. When a movie or play or hybrid movie-play keys into something that resonates, that movie, like truth, is a beautiful thing. Carnage (2011), if I may continue the metaphor beyond the boundary, sings.
Two children, Zachary Cowan (Elvis Polanski) and Ethan Longstreet (Eliot Berger), have a dispute in a park. Zachary hits Ethan with a tree branch and does some damage. Their parents meet up and have agreed to deal with this like civilized adults. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly), the son of the injured child host the event and write a summary in the presence of the belligerent child’s parents Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz). That was going to be it, but the Cowans just can’t seem to leave the apartment. The conversation continues and everyone’s personality starts to come out—with the aid of a single malt (what that means beyond “good,” I do not and shall not inquire). Peace doesn’t stand a chance.
I believe in the god of Carnage.
Carnage is an adaptation of a translated (Michael Katims) French play, Le Dieu de Carnage, or The God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza and, if I understand credits correctly, tinkered with by Roman Polanski (who also directed). If you know me, you know that all of this French business makes me uncomfortable. To say something French (and modern French at that!) resonates with me is not a thing I do gladly or without thought. But when everyone goes silent every time Alan answers his cell phone is just so breathtakingly True, I have to tip my metaphorical Bowler.
I say that now about the cell phone thing and it seems silly to think that I found so much pleasure in it. I think that it is because it is so incredibly odd a thing, so surreal and so ubiquitous, that it’s unbelievable I’ve only seen it once. I’ve seen scenes where someone talks on their phone a lot and it gets destroyed in some way, but the difference is in the frustration.
The reality, and the joke, is that we tolerate cell phone use almost completely. Despite the fact that these things have been mainstream for only some dozen years, society’s response to cell phone interruption has gone from instant exasperation, to begrudging allowance, to near subservience. Nokia, the God of Phonage, would commune with you! Ignore at your peril.
Anyway, I was talking about the movie. How the movie works is that everyone is on everyone’s side and then everyone’s nerves at different points in the narrative—if I can call it “narrative.” The wonderful thing about this dynamic is that you, the audience, will always find something to nod about. Those with more than one voice in their heads may even be nodding all the time.
Because this is a play-movie, I think my first technical subject should be the writing. Plays have the tendency to have people deliver sentences that have either too many or too few words in them to communicate actual meaning. The actors get so much into the patois of the thing that it’s just a switch the audience has to engage when dealing with it. Like watching old movies or Shakespeare. Sometimes the form enhances the meaning, sometimes it detracts.
What Carnage has, in its writing, is some solid truths about people and our world today. I’m not sure there are any answers to the problems because, as I suggested earlier, that which I see as a problem, you may not. Carnage is riddled with notions and those are not easily dealt with. It reveals these notions slowly and then…ends. I suppose that makes this a character drama.
As far as performances go, everyone is excellent and all the characters somewhat repellant. Mission: Accomplished. The direction is simple, as is required of the genre. The editing is terrific, also required if the thing is going to be watchable. It’s very watchable. I recommend owning it, but I’d wait until the price came down to under $12.
Who wants some scotch?